Having a routine is key for playing Magic at a high level. You should know when you play whether you cut your opponents deck or not, how you shuffle your deck, where you put all of your permanents, and even subtle things like how far your creatures go when you attack. This may not seem important, but the more comfortable you feel, the better you play. Most professional players have this built into their brains. They have played enough games that they know exactly how the physical elements and conversation are going to play out, and can put their undivided attention towards the game itself.
Once you feel comfortable with your own routine, it can be valuable to look into disrupting your opponents’. The more effort the opponent has to put into feeling comfortable, the less effort they will be putting into playing well.
Throwing Your Opponents Off
One strategy that is quite effective is being as serious as possible. Players who use this strategy always shuffle their opponent’s deck, talk to them as little as possible, and show little or no emotion. If you watch David Ochoa or Tom Raney play, their opponents often feel stressed. Web almost never talks, and he simply stares at his opponent constantly when he plays. Similarly, Raney wears sunglasses, rarely talks, and simply stares at his opponent throughout the match. By doing this, their opponents quickly get off their rhythm. While this strategy doesn’t always lead to glaring misplays, the subtle awkwardness the opponent feels can often lead to an accumulation of small mistakes.
Another strategy is to suddenly behave unexpectedly. Once, during a Shards PTQ, Tom Raney’s opponent thought Tom had made a bad play. The opponent said, “You’re pretty bad.” Instead of being offended, Tom calmly and tersely replied, “I know.” This unusual response kicked the opponent off his game. The opponent proceeded to play much worse, and almost got a game loss for missing Goblin Assault twice in a row. Tom easily took the match.
Another option to get your opponent off his game is to simply play along with his personality. This strategy works particularly well against players who are inherently casual. Gabe Walls is the best there is at this maneuver. When his opponent is relaxed, Gabe actually encourages it. He jokes around, and is constantly talking. He makes players feel at ease. While it seems like Gabe and his opponent are having fun, Gabe is not being sucked into the feelings of bonhomie: he is thoroughly focused on the win.
If you watch Gabe play, another thing he does really well is assess his opponent’s skill level. Once he does that, he will often point out things he knew the opponent would notice anyway in a friendly, if not silly, tone. For example, if it is obvious that a creature shouldn’t attack, he will make a joke that you should attack with it. If there is a card that would be terrible in the situation, Gabe will jokingly suggest that you cast it. Behind the jokes, Gabe is subtly wrapping the opponent around his finger. When you play against Gabe, you feel like everything is fine … until it comes time to fill out the match slip.
There are other ways to leverage matching an opponent’s personality against themselves. For example, when you make a casual player feel casual, they often forget that playing Magic is not an easy thing to do. A great example of this method was my Round Nine match at GP Portland. My opponent and I were both 8-0 when we sat down to play the final round of the day. When I sat down, my opponent started off by shaking my hand and congratulating me on making Day Two with tremendous enthusiasm. I immediately realized that he was satisfied with this result, and everything that happened from that point on was gravy for him. Therefore, I made it seem that I was in the same boat. I congratulated him back with the same level of enthusiasm. When we presented, I suspected that he wouldn’t bother to shuffle my deck but would only cut it. Sure enough, he cut and I cut in response. During the match, I tried to do what Gabe does better than anybody. I joked around with him and tried to make him feel that we both had it made. I did my best not to laugh when he Mind Controlled my Frost Titan without mana to pay: I gently mentioned that he couldn’t do it. I didn’t chuckle when he made the same mistake the next turn with a [card]Pacifism[/card]. I still kept calm when Cloned my Titan and attempted to tap it with the ability when he couldn’t pay. As he continued to tilt, I kept my happy and relaxed tone. It worked, and I took down Game Two in a similar fashion.
The last strategy is one that not everyone can use: reputation. When you have a reputation of being a good player, people play worse against you. If you ever watch one of LSV’s matches, his opponents often act very nervous and play much worse than they normally do. While obviously not everyone can be LSV, there is still a chance to use reputation to your advantage without winning a Pro Tour. If you Top 8 a few PTQs in a short span, or put up some other good results, word will get around. You can even have your friends mention your great successes while you’re sitting down to play. Soon people will start complaining when they are paired against you and start playing nervous against you.
At the Seattle SCG 10K, I was playing against a Zoo player. LSV walked by to check on my match since he had already finished his. My opponent opened with a fetchland for a Plateau and a Wild Nacatl. Obviously, this doesn’t work. When Luis pointed out that this didn’t work, my opponent said that he had made the mistake because he didn’t want to embarrass himself in front of LSV. Luis joked, “Too late.” Obviously, panic is not conducive to good play.
At a local 5K, I was playing against a Kithkin deck with Cascade Land Destruction (yes, this deck was real). I had recently made the finals of two PTQs in a one week span and was starting to gain reputation in the area. At the beginning of the match, my opponent commented on how he was annoyed he had to play me. Late in game three, I had the game locked up with three Wall of Denials on the board. He had no board except lands and an Honor of the Pure and no cards in hand. However, I was at six life. He ripped a Cloudgoat Ranger and slammed it down. On the next turn, he could attack with his team and force through some damage. However, once he drew and played a land (first main, since he was obviously nervous) I immediately reached for my deck, implying it was obvious that it was time for it to be my turn and I was ready to draw my card. Since he respected me as a player, he trusted that there were no more logical plays. He didn’t bother to look into the viability of attacking for himself. With the extra draw step, I managed to get myself out of the hole and took the match.
When you look at these strategies, the most important thing to consider is which one works best for you. While the goal of this is to get your opponent out of their comfort zone, if it is taking you out of your comfort zone, it won’t work. If you are a funny, talkative person, the Gabe Walls strategy is right up your alley. If you are on the quiet side, it might not hurt to go full-blown silent. Once you have earned respect, either throughout the world or in your community or even just through a manufactured reputation, you will inherently have the LSV advantage. Whatever method fits your personality is the one that will be the most effective because you will execute it the best. Pick your style and cramp theirs.
This story isn’t particularly relevant, but I feel like it’s an awesome enough story that it’s worth sharing. At a PTQ in Sacramento last weekend, I won three of the two credit card games I played in. First of all, Wrapter kindly got me a burrito from Chipotle which I gamed for and won. Later, some friends and I went to a bar and grill to grab some food and watch the Giants game. We gamed for the meal and I didn’t have to pay. Later, the bar ran a raffle. Every time there was a homer, double play, or hit by pitch in the game, they would choose a raffle ticket. The very first ticket chosen was mine, and I jumped up to find out what I won. Of course, it was a free meal. I may not have ran well at the PTQ, but I was clearly on a lucky streak. I hope it continues in Toronto (the luck and the free food!).